The Best of Robert Silverberg: Stories Of Six Decades (book review).
The title says it all. This hefty volume collects stories from Robert Silverberg’s six decades in the business, having some from each ten year span. So without further ado…
The 1950s segment kicks off with ‘Road To Nightfall’. There has been war for two decades and things are getting grim in New York. Katterson was discharged from the army two years before and is struggling to survive. The worst thing is the lack of food. This story was so dark for the time that Silverberg had some trouble selling it. ‘The Macauley Circuit’ is about machines getting in on the arts. ‘Sunrise on Mercury’ is classic fifties Science Fiction with the slightly pulp style of writing that still survived in the genre. There is some glowering and communications buttons are jabbed while pale cheeks quiver as spacemen struggle to explore the solar system. I love this kind of thing.
In the introduction, Silverberg states that he banged out a story a day back then, taking Friday off to peddle them round New York magazines. He seems almost apologetic about them now – ‘not half bad’ – but there’s really no need. He broke into a better quality market with ‘Warm Man’ which appeared in the esteemed ‘Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’. This is a ‘mature’ work set in American suburbia. I preferred the spaceships.
In the 1960s, editor Fredrick Pohl decried Silverberg‘s hack work and declared that he should write the best stories of which he was capable. ‘To See The Invisible Man’ was the advent of the new Silverberg. In the year 2104, in a shiny modern city, a man is sentenced to one year of invisibility. No one will touch, speak to him or acknowledge his existence for a year. His crime: coldness to his fellow citizens. This story aptly demonstrates the transition from cold engineering problems to warm, emotional, human issues that touch the heart. Are they better stories? You decide.
‘Flies’ is a brutal story that appeared in Harlan Ellison’s ‘Dangerous Visions’ anthology in 1965. ‘Passengers’ is another grim tale in which humans are possessed, now and then, by alien minds that take over their bodies and ‘ride’ them for several days. They are careless of the host so a victim wakes up hungry, thirsty and sore with no memory of what his or her body has been used for. ‘Nightwings’ is a brilliant novella set in a far future where aliens once invaded Earth and have threatened to come back. Society is stratified on almost mediaeval lines with guilds for various trades. Our hero is a Watcher, one tasked with scanning the skies every night for any sign of alien invaders. ‘Nightwings’ is Silverberg at his incomparable best. The sixties selection concludes with ‘Sundance’ which raises the difficult conundrum of what constitutes a sentient life form.
The 1970s brings us ‘Good News From The Vatican’ as the cardinals elect the first robot pope. It won the 1971 Nebula Award for best short story. ‘Capricorn Games’ is one of those yarns about sophisticated parties where well-heeled professionals, artists and intellectuals get together. I guess you have to be familiar with that kind of milieu to do it well. At this party, the attraction is an immortal man whose stalked by a beautiful young lady. He has the measure of her.
‘Born With The Dead’ is a long novella on a favourite theme, the dead coming back to life. A man yearns for his wife but she is one of the reborn and they have a different view of things. It’s pretty downbeat. Silverberg handled this topic in ‘Recalled To Life’ a 1962 Ace novel which I don’t have to hand but remember enjoying more. This is followed by the light-hearted ‘Schwartz Between The Galaxies’ in which the author plays Philip. K. Dick-ian tricks with the reader. What is real? Schwartz between the galaxies getting to know interesting aliens or Schwartz the anthropologist on Earth, lecturing on the homogenisation of cultures all over the world into a bland, uniform dullness. The issues raised in this story brought to mind Alan Bloom’s book ‘The Closing Of The American Mind’, but that was published in 1987 and Silverberg’s story dates from 1973. Science Fiction ahead of the pack again!
The 1980s selection opens with ‘The Far Side Of The Bell-Shaped Curve’, a clever little time travel story. Ilsabet and Reichenbach are time travelling tourists who meet up in Sarajevo, 1914, to watch the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand then hop around together when they fall in love, taking in Shakespeare’s London and Nero’s Rome. Time tourists are free to visit anywhere before 2187. Ilsabet meets another tourist and starts to spend more time with him and the jealous Reichenbach plots murder. The conclusion is a clever twist. With the assorted ‘Back To The Future’ films, even ‘Doctor Who’ getting out of trouble and ‘By His Bootstraps’ (Robert A. Heinlein, 1941), you need to be smart to make this sort of thing surprising. Silverberg is smart.
‘The Pope Of The Chimps’, written in June 1981, is about apes. Silverberg explores what happens when smart chimps learn that humans die, a fact which has hitherto been kept from them. If anyone left the research area never to return, the chimps were told he had gone away. The experiment is being conducted to examine how humans made the leap to abstract thought which separated them from animals. The chimps have been taught sign language and bred over generations for intelligence. Silverberg has a thing about popes. He has a thing about time travel, too. ‘Needle In A Timestack’ raises the tricky issue of what to do if someone is messing with your timeline, something which apparently causes a cottony taste in your mouth.
‘Sailing To Byzantium’ won the Nebula Award and missed out on the Hugo by four votes so it’s obviously pretty damn good. A twentieth century man, Charles Phillips, lives the life of Reilly, permanently touring with his hosts from city to city. Timbuktu, New Chicago, Mohenjo-Daro, Alexandria – any city from human history can be recreated in this future paradise. The Earth has only a few million real people left but there are millions of humanoid androids that play the part of slaves and citizens in the recreated cities. Phillips can’t remember much about his past life but assumes that he was snatched from time, another novelty in an age of permanent playtime. As the story develops he learns more.
‘Enter A Soldier: Later: Enter Another’ was written for an anthology in which computer generated simulacra of historical figures would engage in intellectual conflict. Silverberg’s contribution was to pit Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of Peru, against Socrates. He nicely captures both and makes the encounter hugely entertaining. He also demonstrates that Socrates would have been really annoying in person, like an irritating three year-old who keeps asking ‘But why, mummy? Why?’ No wonder they poisoned him. The method by which the simulacra are created, holograms programmed with all the knowledge we have about the persons, seemed pretty far-fetched in 1987 but I believe it is not utterly inconceivable that gamer science might one day achieve it for real.
So to the 1990s. ‘Hunters In The Forest’ combines time travel and dinosaurs, two of Silverberg’s favourite themes. In the future, tourists can hop back to the late Cretaceous Period for a look around but they have to get back in their ship after a few hours because it automatically returns home. This is clever and, as always, skilfully rendered. ‘Death Do Us Part’ wrestles with immortality again. If it’s any consolation to mortal Mister Silverberg, he has achieved a reputation that will long endure, I think, at least in human terms. In cosmic terms we are all ants.
‘Beauty In The Night’ does not start with beauty as a woman gives birth to her illegitimate son on the dirty floor of a restaurant storeroom in Salisbury, England. There is less beauty as it proceeds when the boy’s dear old dad turns up to make his life hell. The backdrop is an alien invasion of Earth by entities who treat us with complete disdain. Silverberg accurately captures the worst aspects of the English underclass which is probably why I found it all a bit depressing. However, it’s a very good story.
What better way to introduce the 2000‘s than with ‘The Millennium Express‘, one of those yarns where Silverberg has fun with historical characters. Here are Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway celebrating the end of the year 2999 by blowing things up. The historical theme continues ‘With Caesar In The Underworld’, part of Silverberg’s ‘Roma Eterna’ series, an alternative history of that mighty empire in which it lasts a while longer than it really did, mainly because those pesky Christians never took control. This tale takes place in the year 529AD our time and involves the succession to the throne as the old Emperor is dying. The Caesar of the story is not Julius, obviously, as Caesar was a title bestowed on many. I’m a bit dubious about alternative history normally but Silverberg does it well. (He does everything well, damn it!) A sound knowledge of actual history no doubt helps.
‘Against The Current’ is one of those stories without a real ending, in this case about a car dealer going backwards in time for no apparent reason. ‘Defenders Of The Frontier’ is a military tale written for an anthology titled ‘Warriors’. Rather than battle, about which the author admits he doesn’t know much, it focuses on other aspects of military life. Cleverly done with a neat conclusion. The last tale here, ‘The Prisoner’ has a twist ending and is full of lively imagery, as you might expect from a fantasy about dreams.
The introductions to the tales are as good as the works themselves. Silverberg is an entertaining writer and the story of his development in the field and his dropping out of it now and then is interesting. Would-be writers and lesser performers will find his ideas stimulating and reading the stories is a master class in fiction. Like Asimov and Stephen King, two other writers who produced short story collections with intros, Silverberg is engaging when discussing his own work.
Six decades of Silverberg makes for a hefty volume but I think his career can be summed up in one sentence. He has won more Nebulas than Hugos. (The Nebula Award is voted for by writers and the Hugo by readers.) He knows this himself and realised in the seventies that he was more popular with other writers than with readers. In a way this is flattering because it means he’s too good to be popular. He is probably the best Science Fiction writer in the history of the genre so far, hence all those Nebulas. However, he’s not the most popular Science Fiction writer.
This is a magnificent collection from an awesome talent and deserves a place on the shelf of any SF aficionado.
(pub: Subterranean Press. 722 page enlarged paperback. Price: $24.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-472-0)
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com